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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Old Vic Theatre,

By Michael Leech

  Robert Lindsay

It's hard to believe 50 years have past since we saw Laurence Olivier doing The Entertainer. John Osborne's depiction of a weary old vaudeville performer was a big success at the Royal Court in 1956, with the star essaying something quite different for him. It was a departure and he literally absorbed it. In this stage role his voice changed, his eyes searched wildly for approval, and his features never stopped changing as he conveyed Archie's desperate need to be a star, a second-rate comic opening for a nude girlie show. He made the character into a sort of ventriloquist's dummy - a mask hiding a real Archie Rice, failed actor, failed family man and haunted human being. Seeing the play again reminds one of the fierce sense of understanding of the character the great actor brought to the role.

A hard act to follow indeed, and in this production Robert Lindsay is up to the challenge. He is lower key, genuinely real as he makes Archie a more prosaic yet gritty performer, refreshingly less fanciful and effete. It works very well. As he mugs, winks, does soft shoe routines and cracks awful jokes, Archie strains to seduce his audience. He knows too well they're there only to ogle the statuesque unmoving nudes and we sense his desperation.

He is no happier back with his family in a grubby set of rooms in an English seaside town where we discover Archie's derelict private life. His daughter (staunchly played by Emma Cunliffe) has come to visit him and there seems to be a real warmth between them, yet during a long drink -laden weekend almost everything falls apart. Wife and son as well as grandfather struggle, complain and quarrel as Archie's faults and infidelities are picked over. In the background a second son is trying to escape from a hostile situation to get home.

It's clear the family is on the rocks, yet the offer of a new life in Canada is jettisoned because Archie won't be able to find his favorite beer. (Actually he probably would have found his beer - there were several Brit clubs in Canada in the '50s, determined to recreate a nostalgic lost life 'back home' in this new world.)

Carefully staged (Sean Holmes) and set The Entertainer emerges as a good involving play (much as did Look Back in Anger, the seminal work that made Osborne famous, when the National Theatre revived it.) It's set in a succession of music-hall scenes. A little slow in pace and contrast but it's very well cast with seasoned performers. Pam Ferris is Archie's unhappy wife and as grand-dad John Normington adds real comic weight.

I only met Osborne once, crouched in a chair at a summer party. He was no longer the handsome lean playwright but the cross, unhappy old hand he had become. I still wish I had braved his renowned vitriol and sharp critical attack to talk and ask questions. His acute understanding and character creation lives on in these revivals and this Entertainer conveys much of the vision of a vital, visceral, ground-breaking writer.


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